Back-to-School Reading Special
from The Water's Edge

Back-to-School Reading Special

Every year editor Bob McMahon and I record a summer reading episode of CFR’s “The World Next Week” podcast. We usually do it in June as we entertain visions of leisurely summer days yet to come devoted not to answering emails and writing memos but to losing ourselves in the pages of a great book. Alas, this year our schedules didn’t mesh. So we only recorded the podcast last week, with more summer days behind us than ahead. Our producer, being a stickler for accuracy, insisted on calling the podcast a Back-to-School Special, words that filled me with delight when I had school-age children but that now only induce melancholy.

Fortunately for my spirits, our wonderful colleague Carla Anne Robbins joined us for the conversation. Carla knows a thing or two about books and writing. She was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal in her prior life. She also did a terrific job telling Ivo Daalder and me how to sharpen the prose in our recent book about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership (2018).

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The ground rules for our discussion were straight forward: We each had to offer up a book we recently read that we wanted to recommend, a book that we were looking forward to reading, and a book we would take to the beach to read before summer ends. Oh, and we agreed that we wouldn’t recommend books by friends or colleagues.

Books We Have Read That We Recommend

Carla recommended Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (2019), George Packer’s biography of the U.S. diplomat best known for negotiating the Dayton Accords. Carla found the book to be both “infuriating and seductive,” much like Holbrooke himself, whom she covered as a journalist. You have to listen to the podcast to find out why Carla found the book infuriating, but it’s not a knock on Packer, whom she calls “an incredible reporter” who has filled his biography “with really great anecdotes.”

Bob recommended Educated: A Memoir (2018) by Tara Westover. Westover was raised in a survivalist family skeptical of the government. She didn’t see the inside of a school classroom until she was seventeen. She nonetheless went on to earn a BA from Brigham Young University and an MPhil and PhD from Cambridge University. Educated tells how Westover made that transition. The story gains much of its power because she draws on journals she wrote growing up. Bob is not alone in praising Educated. Bill Gates says it’s "the kind of book everyone will enjoy. It's even better than you've heard."

I recommended Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (2018) by Max Hastings. There are plenty of great books on Vietnam, whether you are looking for straight historiesmemoirs, or novels. Hastings’s contribution is to highlight how the war felt to those who fought it. By drawing on interviews and memoirs of Americans, South Vietnamese, and mostly important North Vietnamese, he supplements the march of dates and battles with the personal experiences of those on the ground. While Hastings admires the heroism of the men and women who fought, he is scathing in his assessments of the three governments they fought for.

Books We Look Forward to Reading

Carla plans to read The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un (2019) by Anna Fifield. Fifield has done great reporting on Asia for the Washington Post, and before that the Financial Times. In The Great Successor she tries to explain who Kim Jong Un is and what he is seeking to accomplish. She burned up a lot of shoe leather to get the story of the secretive North Korean dictator. She even tracked down his aunt, who now runs a dry cleaner in New York, to better understand what he was like as a child. Given that Kim possesses nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States, it pays to figure out how he sees the world.

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Bob is set to read Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide (2019) by Tony Horwitz. Bob is a big Tony Horwitz fan and plugged two of Horwitz’s earlier books, Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia (1991) and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (1998). Horwitz died in May of sudden cardiac arrest as he was in the midst of the book tour for Spying on the South. It tells the story of how Frederick Law Olmsted, who later gained fame designing New York’s Central Park, toured the American south in the 1850s, once as an undercover correspondent for the New York Times. Horwitz retraces Olmsted’s routes and discovers an America quite different from his hometown of Washington, DC.

I look forward to reading Michael Beschloss’s Presidents of War (2018). Beschloss is a terrific historian and writer. He also has a great Twitter feed for history buffs. Presidents of War tells the story of eight American presidents who took the country to war, as well as one who didn’t. Beschloss ends his tale with Vietnam because he thinks it’s too early to tell the history of America’s more recent, and in some cases, still ongoing wars. My bookshelves are weighed down with books about America’s wars and the war power more generally. I still expect Beschloss to deliver up historical nuggets I haven’t seen before.

Books We Would Take to the Beach

Carla was torn between two recommendations, so she offered both. The first is the Berlin Noir trilogy by the Scottish novelist Philip Kerr: March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990), and A German Requiem (1991). The first two books are set in the early 1930s as Hitler is rising to power, and the third is set just after the Nazis lose the war. The protagonist in all three is a detective, Bernie Gunther, whose work shines a perceptive light on German society. Carla’s only hesitance in recommending Kerr’s trilogy is that the violence in all three books is “pretty brutal.” So she also recommended the Havana Quartet by Leonardo Padura: Havana Blue (first published in Spanish in 1991 and in English in 2007), Havana Gold (1994 and 2008), Havana Red (1997 and 2005), and Havana Black (1998 and 2006). (The film versions of all four books are available in Spanish with English subtitles on Netflix.) Here the protagonist is Mario Conde, a police detective who would rather be a writer. Set in the so-called special period in Cuba after Cold War ended and the Russians stopped underwriting the Castro government, the Havana Quartet, much like the Berlin Noir trilogy, examines “official and unofficial violence, official and unofficial corruption from the perspective of an everyperson.” In that respect, Kerr’s and Padura’s books bring to mind Martin Cruz Smith’s classic, Gorky Park (1981).

Bob is looking forward to reading This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality by Peter Pomerantsev. It’s a follow-on to his 2014 book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, a prescient analysis of how information can be weaponized by authoritarian governments. Pomerantsev was born in the Soviet Union to dissident parents, grew up in Germany and Great Britain, and eventually returned to Russia to work as a television producer. This Is Not Propaganda is partly a memoir and partly an analysis of information warfare in the era of the internet.

I look forward to reading A Legacy of Spies: A Novel (2017) by John Le Carré. I love spy novels. One of the first I read was Le Carré’s Cold War classic, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), which was also a terrific movie with Richard Burton in the role of Alec Leamas. I still remember the tension I felt when Leamas climbed the Berlin Wall. I was hooked. It was a joy to then read Le Carré’s so-called Karla Trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979). A Legacy of Spies has been described as both a prequel and sequel to these novels. One of Leamas’s colleagues is called out of retirement to answer questions about the case that took Leamas to Berlin, creating a chance to revisit fictional characters who to many readers are like old friends.  

If you are looking for other good reads, consider one of these terrific recent books by my CFR colleagues:


You are welcome to check out our summer reading lists for 20132014201520162017, and 2018.

Aliya Medetbekova assisted with the preparation of this post. 

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